Is Foodborne Illness on the Rise?

What is the role of government in making our food safer?


Alexander the Great
Public Domain

The past few weeks have seen what may be an unprecedented number of headlines around the world pertaining to foodborne illness. A number of these illnesses have proven fatal.

In Mozambique, beer allegedly tainted with crocodile bile killed dozens at a wedding. It's unclear at this point how the bile did—or even could—make its way into the beer. (It's also not clear that crocodile bile is poisonous.)

In India, more than two-dozen people are dead and at least 100 people are ill, some severely, after consuming homemade liquor containing deadly methyl alcohol during a cricket match. Elsewhere in India, four members of a family died after dining at a restaurant to celebrate a holiday.

In California, a batch of drug-laced sweet bread from a Santa Ana bakery has sickened more than 40 people. And listeria-tainted apples, which authorities say are linked to a California producer, have killed three.

Despite this news and the prevalence of Buzzfeed-worthy foodborne illness headlines, the domestic food supply is still remarkably safe—and among the safest in the world. CDC data indicate that foodborne illness is not on the rise in the United States. Agency data from 2013 show only one statistically significant increase in illnesses caused by various pathogens (vibrio), while showing statistically significant decreases in illnesses caused by two key pathogens—listeria and salmonella.

But is the overall safety of our food supply enough to warn off regulations? What, if anything, is the government's proper role in preventing foodborne illness and punishing food adulteration?

I think the federal government should have the authority to order adulterated products off the market and to punish (with fines, arrest, or both) those who sell food that sickens others.

While I'm often a critic of FDA regulations—particularly those pertaining to food safety—it turns out that my own beliefs here mirror FDA rules currently in place.

It may surprise you to learn that the FDA only recently was given the power to order food recalls.

Scholars and advocates pushed for years for Congress to grant the FDA the power to order recalls of food that is adulterated and harmful—something that finally came to fruition in the otherwise awful Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA).

Again, I'm a big supporter of the FDA having such power.

"Giving the FDA mandatory recall authority, as the [FSMA] did, is an important tool for forcing foods that have been found to be a definitive hazard off the market," I wrote last year.

The FDA's power to punish those who adulterate food and cause harm has been in place far longer. That's a good thing—particularly if the culprit does so intentionally.

The FDA clearly deserves some of the credit for the safety of our food supply.

But, as I noted in recent FSMA comments I submitted to the FDA on behalf of Keep Food Legal Foundation, the nonprofit I lead, that's but a small piece of the puzzle.

"The FDA can't wash the hands of every eater and cook in the country," I wrote. And it can't prevent bad actors from intentionally poisoning food—as may have happened in India, Mozambique, and California recently.

That's why the private sector's role is so important.

The safety of our food supply is a testament to the men and women who make our food-and to the companies that employ them. It's also thanks to the lawyers who sue those people and companies when they do harm.

Thanks to splashy headlines and a handful of truly appalling recent cases, foodborne illness may appear to be on the rise. Thankfully, that's not the case. What's more, data and the combined efforts of the public and private sectors make it clear that the tools are in place to push back against foodborne illness.